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THE MAYA ZODIAC AT ACANCEH
By STANSBURY HAGAR
A FEW years ago a wall about forty feet in length and covered
with figures in stucco was discovered on the northern side
of a mound at Acanceh, Yucatan, one hour's rail journey
westward from Merida. The place was visited and studied by
Maler, Miss Adela C. Breton, and Professor and Madame Seler.
Photographs of the figures taken by the first and last named visitors
are reproduced, with a carefully prepared drawing of the entire
wall, in Professor Seler's paper on the subject. Miss Breton has
drawn the figures in color and has also published a brief description
of the remains. 1 Mrs James of Merida has also visited and photo-
The inscription is divided horizontally into three parts. In the
top band there is a series of alternating symbols, probably represent-
ing the butterfly, which may be solar, and the stellar eye symbol,
which is conspicuous in the Mitla mural paintings. 2 In the lowest
band are alternating symbols of the planet Venus and two inter-
twined serpentine figures which probably symbolize the year marked
by the northward and southward course of the sun along the ecliptic,
and its daily course above and below the horizon. But the middle
band contains the most important and varied symbols. It is
divided into two rows or panels, the form of which cannot easily be
described (pi. xi). The lower row contains eleven human and
animal figures, while the upper is composed of seven birds and two
human figures. All face toward the west, or left, as is usual in
Maya inscriptions. Three figures in the upper row have been com-
pletely obliterated, — one at each end of the inscription, and the
fourth figure from the western end, — so there seem to have been
1 Breton, Archaeology in Mexico, Man, vm, pp. 34-37. Seler, Die Stuckfassade
von Acanceh in Yucatan, Sitzungsberichte Kdniglich Preussiscken Akad. d. Wissen-
schaften, XLvn (1911), pp. 1011-1025.
? See Spinden, Maya Art, p. 213.
THE STUCCO FACADE AT ACANCEH, YUCATAN. (AFTER SELER)
N. S. VOL. 16, PL. XI
hagar] THE MAYA ZODIAC AT ACANCEH 89
12 figures in the upper row, making a total of 23 in the middle band.
In the lower row the third and fourth figures from the western end
have been almost wholly obliterated. The inscription terminates
at each end in the conventionalized figure of a large bird. The
interstices between the panels at the top of the middle band con-
tain sacrificial cups and feathers. The purpose of this paper is to
interpret the symbols contained within the panels. Dr Seler has
identified them with various animals,! birds, and deities, and I
accept this identification in many, but not all instances.
We shall read the symbols from east to west, or from right to
left, in accord with the direction in which the figures face, revers-
ing the numerical sequence used by Dr- Seler. Beginning then
with the first legible symbol in the lower line on the right we perceive
the figure of a rattlesnake. Tzab-ek, Rattle Asterism, is the Maya
name of the Pleiades in Taurus. 1 The alignment of this star group
readily suggests the rattle of the snake. Above the rattlesnake,
in the next compartment on the left, appears a human figure
plunging downward head-first. The writer has given reasons in a
former paper for identifying this figure, as it appears in a zodiacal
sequence in the Dresden codex, with the double sign Aries-Taurus.
It seems to represent one of a group of stars called Tzontemoc by the
Mexicans, whose fall from heaven with the lord of the dead was
commemorated in the Quecholli festival held when the Pleiades
were on or near the meridian at midnight, or when the sun was in
the opposite sign Scorpio ruled by the lord of the dead. Now, just
at this time the Taurid meteors were most numerous in the sky.
They were so called because they emanated from a point in Taurus
not far from the Pleiades, so it seems probable that this falling
figure represented the descent of one of these meteors. 2 In that
case, the first two symbols refer to the sign Taurus.
Next to the left in the lower line is a human figure with appar-
ently abnormal proportions, suggesting the Mexican Xolotl, lord
of twins and of deformed and monstrous beings. He shares with
1 Brinton, Primer of Mayan Hieroglyphs, pp. 34-35.
2 See Hagar in Proc. Internat. Cong. Americanists, 16th Session, p. 284. Dr Seler
thinks the face of the Acanceh figure is that of an ape. Nothing in the astronomical
symbolism confirms this.
90 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [s. s., 16, 1914
his twin brother Quetzalcoatl, the Divine Twin, the rulership of
the sign Gemini, the Twins. Above him is the quetzal bird, symbol
of the deity just mentioned, whom the Maya called Cuculcan.
Therefore this second group of symbols seems to represent Gemini,
the sign following Taurus in the zodiac.
Next in the lower line is a human figure with the head of a
crocodile or some other amphibian. It is probably Imix, the
eighteenth Maya day-sign. This name, according to Brinton and
Forstemann, was originally mex, the cuttlefish, but it became cor-
rupted and the meaning later associated itself with a crocodile or
with some indeterminate sea-monster. 1 Each of the twenty Maya
day-signs was assigned in sequence to a definite part of the zodiac,
Imix to Cancer the Crab, the sign following Gemini. 2
Above, an ara flies downward. It is the Kinich Kakmo, the
Sun Eye and the Ara of Fire which descended from the sky upon an
altar at the moment of the June solstice to consume the offerings.
The sun is in the sign Cancer at this time, and the ara is perhaps
the most prominent symbol of the sign. It was used by the
Mexicans as well as by the Maya. 3 The symbol of speech, song, or
sound that issues from its mouth answers to the Cancer Uinal or
months, Kayab, Song, and Cumku, Thunder, also to the day-sign
Cauac, one meaning of which is given as music. The reference is
evidently to the season of storms, the thunder being regarded as
the celestial drum. 4
The next zodiacal sign is Leo, and in the following panel we
see the unmistakable figure of a puma or jaguar which denoted that
sign in both the Maya and the Mexican codices. Beside him is the
severed head of a human victim. Above is a pelican in the act of
swallowing its food. This bird is not elsewhere used as a Leo sym-
bol, so far as the writer is aware, but it is sufficiently appropriate.
The Maya festival of fishermen and hunters held during the uinal
month Pop, when the sun was in Leo, supports other evidence of
the association of the Maya sign with the deity of the hunt, for
1 See Forstemann in Bui. 28, Bur. Amer. Ethnology, pp. 566, 567.
s Hagar in Proc. Internal. Cong. Americanists, 17th Session, pp. 140 et seq.
8 Hagar in Amer. Anthr., n. s., xv, pp. 19-23.
* See Seler in Bui. 28, Bur. Amer. Ethnology, p. 668.
hagar] THE MAYA ZODIAC AT ACANCEH 9 1
the ritual of the Maya annual festivals, like those of the Peruvians,
Mexicans, and the Pueblo tribes of the United States, reflected the
attributes of the sign through which the sun was passing at the time
when the festival was held. The pelican is a greedy fisher which
takes its prey by hovering over the water and plunging upon it
when it appears. These birds often fly in large flocks, and their
sudden swoop upon a shoal of fish is a striking and beautiful sight.
The significance of the pelican as a Leo symbol is clearly indicated
The next lower panel contains an animal which may be a lizard,
corresponding with the fourth Mexican day-sign Cuetzpalin of
Virgo, though its tail does not seem to pertain to the animal named.
The iguana is frequently represented in association with Kan, the
grain of maize, Maya day-sign of Virgo. The figure in the panel
above is the maize deity eating a maize cake. He is dressed in
dancing costume and carries a basket which may contain tobacco,
as Dr Seler thinks, or food. This is the deity who presides over the
Maya Virgo asterism. The dancing may refer to harvest rites.
Under Libra, the following sign, the rattlesnake appears again
beside a peculiar crescent-shaped object which I cannot identify,
but which, to judge from allied symbolism, may represent the light-
ning or thunderbolt. The snake here stands for Chicchan, the
serpent, the second Maya day-sign under Libra. This word may
conceal the name chuch, scorpion, the insect which represents Libra
and Scorpio in the Mexican asterisms of Tezozomoc and Sahagun,
and the latter sign in the fifth Maya day-sign Tzec or Scorpion.
Above the rattlesnake is seen an owl, the recognized symbol of the
Death God A of the Maya codices who rules the death-signs Libra
In the lower Scorpio panel is figured a man seated in a chair and
wearing an artistic head-dress, probably indicative of high rank. 1
His open mouth, from which issues a conspicuous symbol of speech,
and his protruding tongue identify him with the Chilan or oracular
priest, the Mexican Tlahtoani, who announces the responses which
he was believed to obtain from the spirits of the dead. The animal
1 See Seler in Bui. 28, Bur. Amer. Ethnology, p. 380.
92 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [n. s., 16, 1914.
tail behind him may be that of a scorpion. A similar figure repre-
sents Scorpio in the Borgian and other Mexican codices. The
Maya held the Chilan in such veneration that when he journeyed
he was almost invariably carried in a litter. 1
A bat is represented above the Chilan. This animal pertains
to the Libra uinal Tzotz, or Bat, so we may be sufficiently presump-
tuous to suspect that the positions of the owl and the bat have been
interchanged by mistake, or it may be that, as Libra and Scorpio
were regarded in the codices as one double sign, care was not taken
to differentiate the positions of the symbols relating to its two
parts. The sign of speech or sound issuing from the mouth of the
silent bat may indicate the oracular symbolism of the sign just
referred to. The glyph of the evening star occurs twice beside the
wings. The bat deity in the Maya codices devours the light as
ruler of the subterranean cavern into which the sun sinks at
setting. 2 This is probably a symbol of the autumnal equinox when
darkness prevails over light and the evening star is appropriately
placed with these symbols of darkness and night.
The next lower panel is partially obliterated, but what seems to
be a tablet of some kind is supported upon two legs, probably of a
puma, or ocelot, and at the top of the panel we seem to see the head
and antlers of a stag. Both the ocelot and the stag are used
as symbols of Sagittarius amongst the Mexicans, and the ocelot
amongst the Maya also. Mazatl, deer, is the corresponding Mexican
The long round objects to right and left should be cases of
arrows or other weapons to correspond with the attributes of the
war god who rules this sign. The upper panel is entirely destroyed.
Only a trace remains visible of the figure in the lower Capri-
cornus panel. This trace includes a flame-like object which may
pertain to the solsticial solar deity. Above is an unknown bird.
In the lower Aquarius panel there is the figure of a squirrel or
rodent, suggesting the tenth Mexican day-sign, Itzcuintli, some form
of rodent. But this day seems to pertain to the preceding zodiacal
1 Landa (Brasseur ed.), p. 160.
2 See Fewkes, God D, Amer. Anthr., vm, pp. 209, 210, 1895.
hagar] THE MAYA ZODIAC AT ACANCEH 93
sign. The bird above may be a vulture, corresponding with the
Aquarius symbol in the Borgiano and related codices.
Finally, the Pisces panel contains a frog which may represent
the Virgo uinal Uo, Frog, as a catasterism. With it appears the
glyph of the uinal twenty -day period. The spiral speech or sound
symbol issuing from its mouth may refer to the noisy croaking of
the frogs. The upper panel is obliterated. The inscription ter-
minates on the east in a large conventionalized bird serpent, here,
probably, symbolizing the sky deity.
We have now found symbols of nearly all the zodiacal signs in
proper sequence within the panels of the middle band. Aries is
missing, the figure which should represent it at the eastern end of
the inscription being obliterated. Sagittarius is doubtful or com-
pletely obliterated, and Capricornus indefinite and obliterated,
but the other signs are all represented, and from Taurus to Sagit-
tarius every symbol has been identified, with a single exception.
It is now a simple deduction that the sacrificial cups in the top band
refer to those used in the zodiacal ritual of the monthly festivals,
each festival being governed by a different zodiacal sign. And as
for the planet symbol in the lowest band, the planets were naturally
figured in association with the zodiac because they move only
within it. The zodiac of Acanceh is unique in that its symbols are
presented in a double sequence, that is with two symbols pertaining
to each sign.
The symbols in the lower band may pertain to the asterisms
themselves, those in the upper band to the deities governing them,
Sign Asterism Governing Deity
Aries (Missing) (Missing)
Taurus Tzab-ek, Rattle Asterism Tzontemoc 1
Gemini Xolotl, Lord of Twins 1 Cuculcan, the Bird-serpent
Cancer Imix, Water, Monster Kinich Ahau, Lord Sun-Eye
Leo Balatn or Tzakmul, Jaguar Pelican Deity
Virgo Cuetzpalin, Lizard 1 Maize Deity
Libra Chicchan, Serpent Death God 2
1 Mexican name, Maya equivalent unknown.
2 The positions of this and the Bat deity following should apparently be inter-
AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [n. s.,
, 16, 1914
Chilan, Oracular Priest
Tzotz, Bat Deity
Ocelot and Stag.
A Bird Deity?
Itzcuintli, Rodent 1
Uo, Frog 2
The Acanceh zodiac differs from that of Izamal in which each
mound bore only the symbol of the sign which governed it, but it
is similar to the continuous band of zodiacal symbols presented in
the mural paintings at Mitla, and the Mexican or Nahuatl influence
is marked throughout these symbols.
We find in this zodiac the same sequence of symbolism which
the writer has presented in previous papers on the star chart of
Salcamayhua and the star lists of early writers, in the plan of the
city of Cuzco and in the annual ritual of Peru, in the codices and
ritual, the asterisms of Tezozomoc, Sahagun, and Duran, the names
of months and day-signs and the plan of Teotihuacan in Mexico
and in the codices and ritual, names of months and day -signs and
the plan of Izamal in Yucatan. The writer believes that he has
also found this sequence and hopes later to present it in the system
of ceques, or shrine divisions, of Cuzco, on the inscriptions at Santa
Rita in British Honduras, on the wall paintings at Mitla in Mexico,
and in the annual ritual of the Pueblo tribes in Arizona and New
Mexico. There is also evidence that some of the Mexican and Maya
temples were dedicated to zodiacal signs. And between all these
sequences the correspondence of the symbolism is marked. To the
writer it seems that the existence of this nearly identical sequence
in the instances named must be granted by those who examine
the sources of information. If this be so it indicates the wide
distribution and the importance of the symbolism on which it is
based. Whether this zodiacal interpretation affords a satisfactory
explanation of the oft-recurring sequence, the reader must judge.
But, as the writer has previously pointed out, such a series of
sequences cannot be produced either by chance or imagination, nor
can an explanation which consistently explains them all in proper
1 Mexican name, Maya equivalent unknown.
2 Virgo as a catasterism.
hagar] THE MAYA ZODIAC AT ACANCEH 95
order. And the explanation is based not on the possibility of per-
ceiving in a certain group of stars one of the countless forms which
imagination can locate there, but first upon positive evidence
from star charts and lists, from ceremonials and place names, that
certain forms were located in certain asterisms, and secondly on
the fact that the other symbols consistently fit into the positions
to which they must be assigned in the sequence, when the position
of any one member of that sequence has been determined. Such
is the basis on which rests the evidence of the existence and dis-
tribution of an American zodiac known from Peru to Arizona. And
it should be added that the analogies between the various examples
of this American zodiac are but little more striking than the analogy
between it and the zodiacs of the Orient, whatever this fact may
Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences
Brooklyn, New York